When someone you love dies, you know that you will grieve, but did you know that your risk of experiencing a heart attack goes up 21 times as well? People have spoken of dying of a broken heart for years, knowing intuitively what research is now confirming. The New York Times reported on a study in Circulation that where nearly 2,000 participants who had experienced a myocardial infarction, commonly referred to as a heart attack, were interviewed about the loss of loved ones and the recency of those losses. They were also asked questions about their overall health and other risk factors to make sure all other variables were controlled. While your risk for a heart attack will decline over time, it remains higher for at least a month and is six times higher than normal in the first week after the loss of a loved one. If you have other risk factors for heart attack you are even more vulnerable.
Risk factors include age (45 or older for men and 55 or older for women), smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, family history, physical in activity, obesity, stress, and use of stimulant drugs. The loss of a loved one is one of the most stressful events a person will experience, so it is not surprising that it could result in such a drastic health crisis. Grieving and all the tasks and events included in the rituals of saying goodbye can lead people to miss meals, experience insomnia, avoid workouts, isolate themselves, and miss medications. None of these things are good for your physical health or your mental health. Yet, such a drastic and extended increase in risk for heart attack cannot be explained simply by these behavior changes. In addition, the emotions of depression, anxiety, and anger, all common during grief, can be accompanied by an increased heart rate.
I would venture that anniversaries, birthdays, and holidays, such as Valentine’s Day, could also increase risk of heart attack as grief also resurges during such times. If you have lost someone close to you in the last five years and/or still experience feelings of grief, please take care of your heart this Valentine’s Day. Make sure you are getting enough sleep, exercising, eating nutritional meals, taking your medication, and spending time with other people. Grief is a process that is unique to the individual. There is no right or wrong way to grieve. Grief is a process of emotional healing, while your physical health has been damaged by the loss of a loved one, breaking your heart in more than one way.